A Georgios Samaras second-half double helped Celtic to a 2-0 win over Rangers in the second Old Firm derby of the season as they extended their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League to four points.
Lee McCulloch's header was cleared off the line in an explosive start but the neither side created many chances in a tame first 45 minutes. However, Celtic looked sharper immediately after the break and after Paddy McCourt came close it was Samaras who opened the scoring in the 62nd minute with a breakaway goal.
Just seven minutes later the Greek striker, in only his second start since October, won and dispatched a penalty after being brought down by Madjid Bougherra as Celtic got off to 2011 with their first win at Ibrox since December 2008. Celtic made two changes to the side that beat Motherwell in midweek with Daryl Murphy and Niall McGinn making way for Charlie Mulgrew and Beram Kayal. Rangers handed youngster Jamie Ness an Old Firm debut at the expense of the injured Steven Naismith.
"I didn't think there was one failure out there today," proud Hoops boss Neil Lennon said. "They were very resilient, the back four were magnificent, the midfield players, once they got a grip of the game, dominated and I thought Samaras was unplayable."
Walter Smith thought his side had started well. "We can be pleased with the way we played in the first-half of the match with the exception of a little bit more creation needed to be shown," the Rangers boss, whose side have played two games less than Celtic, said.
"It looked as though the first goal was going to be a vital one for whoever was going to get it and disappointingly we gave away two goals that have cost us the game."
Before the game both clubs impeccably marked the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox disaster, where 66 fans lost their lives and 200 were injured on a crush on Stairway 13 during a 1-1 draw between the teams on 2 January, 1971. But normal hostilities resumed at kick-off and Rangers came close to taking the lead in the fifth minute. McCulloch leaped to knock on a Vladamir Weiss corner which looked to be dropping in before Emilio Izaguirre headed it off the line via the crossbar.
McCulloch then had to time a tackle to perfection in the box as he won a challenge with James Forrest after Paddy McCourt had sent him in on goal. Both sides were missing some sharp finishing and Whittaker didn't improve matters when he sliced Weiss' cross from the right wide. Celtic's best chance fell to Mulgrew minutes before the break when he met Forrest's cross but couldn't direct his header on target.
Samaras buoys title hopes
The Hoops started the second-half with more purpose and within 60 seconds McCourt was presented with a chance in the box but under pressure from David Weir the Northern Ireland international pulled his shot wide. Celtic then took the lead through a quick breakaway in the 62nd minute. A Rangers attack broke down and Samaras got to Joe Ledley's threaded long-ball before slotting home from an acute angle past keeper Allan McGregor.
McGregor then had to be alert to hold a Mulgrew free-kick then tip over his corner as Celtic pressed home their advantage. Rangers brought on Kyle Lafferty for Richard Foster as they looked for an equaliser but it was Celtic who doubled their lead in the 69th minute. Bougherra brought down Samaras as he turned in the box and although McGregor guessed the right way the Greek placed his spot-kick beyond him low to his left.
Rangers poured forward in search of a way back into the game and Sasa Papac came close when he sent a low drive inches wide from a Weiss corner. Bougherra was then presented with a great chance when Whittaker picked him out in space 12 yards out but he sliced his volley over Fraser Forster's bar. Kayal fired in a fierce drive from 30 yards which McGregor was relieved to see go wide as Celtic claimed all three points.